RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

It could happen to you. Friends and relatives have traveled over the river and through the woods to your house for Thanksgiving. You started cooking well before dawn and just as your culinary masterpiece is taking shape, your worst nightmare comes true. The biscuits are burned, the gravy is lumpy, the turkey has gone afoul. Chances are, a famous chef will not materialize in your kitchen to make everything right. But materializing in your radio, we now present a man who specializes in the best way to pull off any kitchen task to help save your Thanksgiving.

Christopher Kimball is the creator of the PBS television show "America's Test Kitchen" and Cook's Illustrated magazine. Normally, the show is taped in Boston in a gleaming, state-of-the-art kitchen laboratory. This day, Chris Kimball is working in far more humble surroundings, my kitchen.

(Soundbite of dishes rattling)

MONTAGNE: First, an inspection. Chris Kimball rustles through my cabinets and drawers.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL ("America's Test Kitchen"): Measuring cups, they're a little light, and you have one good set.

MONTAGNE: No, I've got...

Mr. KIMBALL: No, those are all right. OK.

MONTAGNE: I've got another set up there.

Mr. KIMBALL: You do have a lemon-lime press, one of those...

MONTAGNE: From Mexico.

Mr. KIMBALL: Those are very nice, yeah. You don't have a digital timer.

MONTAGNE: No.

Mr. KIMBALL: You have one of the old-fashioned ones here. So those are not particularly accurate, but they do work.

MONTAGNE: I didn't take your advice last year.

Mr. KIMBALL: How many times am I going to have to come by before you start listening to me.

MONTAGNE: OK, so now on to the business of saving Thanksgiving.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Perhaps the most serious Thanksgiving nightmare, a turkey that is only partly thawed, and I put it in the fridge two days ago. The outside is fine, but deep in the belly of the bird lies a glacier. And guess what?

Mr. KIMBALL: A 20-pound bird could take up to five days to defrost; four or five pounds a day is the rule in the refrigerator. Most people take it out Wednesday afternoon, a 15-pound bird, and they think by the next morning it's defrosted. And there is a solution: leave it in the packaging, put in a sink or a beer cooler, cold water. Let's do the sink, right here, put it in and let it sit for 30 minutes.

MONTAGNE: Cover? Fill the sink up, right, enough to cover it up?

Mr. KIMBALL: Cover, and the reason is, you know, water's a better conductor of heat than air, so it'll drain off the cold from the turkey faster. Change the water every 30 minutes 'cause as it heats up, you don't want that bird to get over 40 degrees. Because if there is any contamination, which there isn't on most birds, that's the temperature in which the bacteria can start to multiply.

MONTAGNE: OK, so let's say your turkey comes out great but not so your gravy. It's a problem that is so common, we put Chris Kimball's recipe for save the day gravy at npr.org so you can look at it again and again.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Back to my kitchen and our next Thanksgiving nightmare, burned biscuits; flaky and buttery on the inside but sooty black on the top.

Mr. KIMBALL: We're actually going to take a simple solution, a Microplane zester--it's a grater essentially with a handle. And we're just going to take it and we're going to rasp off the--this isn't working very well.

(Soundbite of grating)

MONTAGNE: What if you used...

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, forget this fancy one...

MONTAGNE: ...a cheese grater.

Mr. KIMBALL: Here we go. Let's try a cheese grater with the biscuits.

(Soundbite of grating)

Mr. KIMBALL: That works much better.

(Soundbite of grating)

MONTAGNE: There--this is very great 'cause the top looks charming enough.

(Soundbite of grating)

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Another nightmare, pies, and so much can go wrong, starting with crumbly pie dough that's impossible to roll out, impossible to bake.

Mr. KIMBALL: This is a desert dough.

MONTAGNE: Oh, my gosh.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, I mean, this...

MONTAGNE: It's falling apart.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, not enough rainfall. Take the dough off the counter, put it in a bowl, add some cold water to it. People are so scared that the dough is going to end up too wet. Don't worry about it. If you can't roll the dough out, you're never going to eat it. If it doesn't get in the pan--and hold the pan, so there you go. Now feel that. That's going to feel...

MONTAGNE: Oh, it feels pretty good.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, and there you go. Now you have nice-looking dough. You can see little pieces of butter.

MONTAGNE: Look at big pieces of butter.

Mr. KIMBALL: That'll make it flaky. Yeah, there you go.

MONTAGNE: That solved, here's another pie predicament. Bake a pumpkin pie and it develops cracks. There's a quick fix. You can hide it under whipped cream, but next time try taking the pie out of the oven before it's cooked all the way through. The middle should still be wobbly--I know, a little scary--but it will continue to cook while on the counter, and it will be both crack-free and richer tasting.

Let's say you end up with dry pie, you're looking at it. It's Thanksgiving. Any way to fix that?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, I would, first of all, serve it and say this is the best pie I've ever made. You always lie about your desserts. Never tell people what you've made until you make it. So, I mean, this is one of the problems that happened to me. I actually had a pumpkin pie fall on the floor, and to your great horror, you'll know I actually served it. I scraped it up, I put it in a bowl and I said it was pumpkin pandowdy, you know, or jumble, we call it pumpkin jumble. So if you have a problem, just rearrange the presentation, that's safe to say.

MONTAGNE: That's good advice.

Mr. KIMBALL: Just like expensive restaurants...

MONTAGNE: That's good life advice.

Mr. KIMBALL: That's right.

MONTAGNE: And, by the way, if you need to take a pie somewhere, and people often do on Thanksgiving, round up a 10-inch pizza box from your local pizzeria, line it with a piece of non-skid shelf paper and, voila, a perfect pie caddy.

So now on to bland, tasteless vegetables.

Mr. KIMBALL: Every year, I used to go to my mother's with organic vegetables that she took out of the root cellar and microwaved for five minutes and put on the table. No salt, no oil, no herbs, so I had to, like, sneak into the kitchen and do something. So here's what I used to do. Again, we have some snow peas, some green beans, some carrots and broccoli. You can make a vinaigrette. This is honey mustard dijon vinaigrette and put it on the vegetables to dress it up.

MONTAGNE: But on the warm vegetable.

Mr. KIMBALL: On warm vegetables...

MONTAGNE: We always think of vinaigrette on the obvious.

Mr. KIMBALL: That's right. And you can just grate some Parmesan cheese on top, a few hot red pepper flakes maybe, fresh herbs, any of those three with the olive oil is fine.

MONTAGNE: Then you brought some sesame oil.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, this is--there are two kinds of sesame oil. There's roasted or toasted sesame oil which has a lot of flavor. If you want to just--here, tons of flavor.

MONTAGNE: Mm, what did you say to your mother when--after she steamed all these organic vegetables and they suddenly reappeared with vinaigrette on them.

Mr. KIMBALL: I said, `Gee, these taste good, Mom.' I didn't say anything. What?--Are you kidding me?

MONTAGNE: And here's another tip: If you don't happen to have a nutcracker and need one, Chris Kimball says simply put the nuts in a freezer bag and whack them with a pot.

(Soundbite of pounding)

Mr. KIMBALL: There we go.

MONTAGNE: Perfect almond. You need a moment like that probably every Thanksgiving.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, it feels good.

(Soundbite of pounding)

MONTAGNE: Now if your Thanksgiving dinner does turn into a nightmare, think of it this way, it'll be a great story to tell next Thanksgiving. And Chris Kimball says even professional chefs have mishaps. Sometimes they even cause them.

Mr. KIMBALL: I actually know a woman who, in early age, published a cookbook in which she contained a recipe for roast stuffed turkey with popcorn stuffing. She forgot to mention you need to pop the kernels first, so in thousands of kitchens across America, they were putting in four cups of unpopped corn kernels into the birds. And they were exploding all over. They had to recall the cookbook. That's probably the worst-case scenario. Another reader said that she had a large bird and a fairly small electric oven. She decided to basted it one year with cognac, and, of course, it turned into a vaporized. The electric oven turns on, it explodes. The door is shoved open, a fireball goes out into the kitchen, and that created a vacuum, so the door slammed shut right afterwards. And her--she said her son was there and saying, `Wow, Mom! Can you do that again?' He thought that was really cool.

MONTAGNE: Christopher Kimball, he's the host of the PBS show "America's Test Kitchen," and this year, saving Thanksgiving in my kitchen. If we didn't get to your kitchen crisis, there's more at npr.org. And remember, you can always order takeout.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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